Twice in my life my anxiety got so bad that I took antidepressants.
They didn’t help.
They made things worse by adding horrible side effects to my anxiety. And along with the side effects came a whole new anxiety about being hooked on pills.
Both times I was on antidepressants I spent most of my time thinking about how to get off them.
That’s what got me looking into natural ways to increase serotonin.
Antidepressants work by helping your brain “recycle” your serotonin, which effectively increases the amount of serotonin in your system. The more serotonin you have in your system the less anxiety you’ll feel.
I knew when I stopped taking the pills my serotonin levels would crash while my body adjusted, which would mean increased anxiety.
It seemed like a good idea to do whatever I could to naturally increase my serotonin levels. That would make the withdrawal of the antidepressants easier to handle.
To help me do that I read every book and scientific study I could find on the subject of serotonin.
What follows in this post is the best stuff I learned. More specifically, what follows are the 5 best ways to naturally increase your serotonin.
Use the ideas that follow. See what they do for you. Each idea has the potential to dramatically increase your serotonin levels, and the more serotonin you have the less anxiety you should feel.
1. Get More Bright Light
Do you spend a lot of time outside in bright daylight? I don’t. Most people don’t.
Most people work inside. Dimly lit offices, factories, stores.
When most people aren’t at work they’re inside, in their own houses or in somebody else’s.
When not at work or at home most people are driving. There’s not much bright daylight inside a car. And where are most people driving? Somewhere else where they’ll be inside.
This is the way most people live these days. Almost always inside.
There was a study done at McGill University in Montreal to see how much exposure to bright daylight an average person gets. The average person got 20 minutes a day.
When you get so little bright daylight it screws up your internal clock, and that leads to your body not making enough serotonin.
The solution is to reset your internal clock and to make sure it never gets screwed up again. Do this and you’ll start to make more serotonin.
Your internal clock is controlled by the light/dark cycle of a day.
When you’re in bright light your body makes serotonin, which controls things like your mood, your appetite, your emotions.
When you’re in darkness or dim light your body converts serotonin to melatonin, which makes you sleepy ready for bed.
At the moment your light/dark cycle is probably out of balance – you get too much dark and not enough light.
You need to restore balance to your light/dark cycle by exposing yourself to more bright light. Once the balance is restored your internal clock will reset and you’ll make more serotonin.
There are 2 ways to get more bright light. Natural daylight and light boxes:
- natural daylight – the simplest way to get more bright light is to spend more time outside. Even on a cloudy day the light outside is 20 times brighter than indoor lighting. On a sunny day the light outside is 500 times brighter than indoor lighting. Natural daylight is so bright that you don’t need much of it to make a difference. An hour a day of extra daylight is usually enough to reset your internal clock
- light boxes – another way to get more bright light is to use a light box. These are artificial indoor lights that are extremely bright and mimic the wavelengths of natural daylight. The light given out by these light boxes is the same brightness as a sunny day. Using a light box for a couple of hours a day should be enough to reset your internal clock
I try to get out for at least an hour a day in the daytime. I have 2 dogs to walk so that’s a good excuse.
But I also use a light box. I know how damaging it can be to the body and mind if you don’t get enough bright light. So now I go out of my way to get plenty.
I have a light box beside me on the desk where I work, and I try to have it on for at least an hour during the day.
Do your best to get some extra bright light, either by going outside more often or by using a light box.
2. Trick Yourself Happy
The weirdest thing I’ve learned about serotonin is that you make more of it while you’re happy and less of it while you’re sad.
Which is kind of frustrating.
When you’re happy and you have no need for extra serotonin, you make more of it. When you’re unhappy and you need all the serotonin you can get, you make less of it.
How does knowing this help?
If you’re unhappy and you need extra serotonin you can’t force yourself to feel happy.
Happiness isn’t a choice.
So what can you do? How do you use happiness to increase your serotonin when happiness can’t be forced?
I found the answer to that question in a study that was done at The University of Montreal.
In the study dozens of volunteers were asked to recall memories from their pasts. First they had to recall happy memories. Then they had to recall sad memories.
Throughout the experiment the volunteers had their serotonin levels monitored.
When the experiment was over the data was was analysed. The data showed that there was a direct link between the volunteers’ serotonin levels and the memories they’d been told to think of.
Recalling happy memories had caused the volunteers’ serotonin levels to rise. Recalling sad memories had caused the volunteers’ serotonin levels to fall.
The doctors conducting the experiment discovered that the part of your brain that’s active when you’re happy is the same part of your brain that’s active when you think of happy memories from your past.
When this part of your brain is active serotonin production increases.
So thinking of happy times from your past creates just as much serotonin as being genuinely happy in the moment.
Thinking of happy times isn’t as easy at it sounds – not when your mood is low or you’re highly anxious. But I’ve got a few suggestions to make it easier:
- look at old photos – when you’re feeling sad or anxious it can be hard to think of happy times from your past. It’s almost like sadness and anxiety block good memories from being recalled. One of the best ways to overcome this problem is to look at old photos. If you’re staring at photos of a happy time it’s impossible for you to deny that it happened
- read your old diary – if you’ve ever kept a diary go through it and look for entries about happy events. If you can read your own words about happy times it’s impossible for you to deny that they happened
- reminisce with someone – talk to someone you’ve known for a long time and there are sure to be happy times you’ve spent together. If your current mood prevents you from recalling those happy times then ask your friend or family member to recall some for you and then talk about them
Before I stumbled upon the study done at The University of Montreal I had no idea that recalling happy memories could be so beneficial.
Now that I know it can increase serotonin levels it’s something I try to do as often as I can.
You should do it too.
3. Trigger Simple Exercise
When you exercise 2 beneficial changes happen inside your brain.
First, the hippocampus and cortex areas of your brain speed up the firing rate of serotonin neurons, leading directly to more serotonin.
Second, when you experience the fatigue that happens during and after exercise, your brain makes use of more of the tryptophan you’ve eaten.
Tryptophan is what your body uses to make serotonin, so having more tryptophan available in your brain also leads directly to increased serotonin.
The more you exercise the more serotonin you’ll make and the less anxiety you’ll feel.
So the challenge is to find ways to get more exercise. That’s hard enough at the best of times, but when you’re anxious or depressed exercise is the last thing on your mind.
To help you to get some extra exercise to raise your serotonin levels, even when your mood is totally negative, I’ll share some of the ideas that have helped me in the past.
First, a couple of things you should avoid:
- don’t join a gym – the first thing many people do when they decide to get more exercise is join a gym. Don’t do it. Joining a gym, or even thinking about joining a gym, will intimidate and overwhelm you with negative thoughts about cost, suffering, embarrassment, and hassle
- don’t buy fitness equipment – another thing lots of people do when they decide to start exercising is to buy lots of fitness equipment. Don’t do it. Every second you’re not using fitness equipment that’s lying around your home you’ll feel guilty. The negativity of your guilt will cancel out any of the positivity from your exercise, making all your effort count for nothing
Now onto the things you should be doing:
- make exercise a triggered habit – almost all habits, good and bad, have triggers. Watching TV might trigger eating. Finishing your dinner might trigger alcohol or a cigarette. Worrying might trigger nail biting. Most of these triggers happen without you noticing. But if you can become aware of your triggers you can create healthier ones. So when you watch TV, make the commercial breaks a trigger to stand up and do 10 squats. When you get undressed to take a bath or shower, make it a trigger to get down and do 10 sit ups. Put something heavy by your alarm clock, and when the alarm wakes you in the morning, make it a trigger to do 10 bicep curls. Find creative ways to trigger simple exercises throughout the day
- focus on the benefit – it’s hard to stick to exercise, even when it’s simple things like squats, sit ups, and walking. You need to find some motivation that will help you stick to it. You should find all the motivation you need in the knowledge that exercise increases your serotonin. When you exercise, constantly remind yourself that what you’re doing is a natural antidepressant. Tell yourself that the more exercise you do the better you’ll feel
- keep a mood journal – positive results are inspiring, and if exercise makes your anxiety less severe you’ll find it’s easy to keep it up. But how can you be sure the exercise is helping you? The easiest way is to keep a mood journal. Get a notebook and start keeping track of how you feel. Nothing over the top – just a few words a day. Also keep track of what exercise you’ve done and when. Then look for patterns in your journal. Is your anxiety better on days when you exercise? If so, use that knowledge to inspire you to even more exercise. Create your own anti-anxiety feedback loop, where exercise reduces anxiety and your reduced anxiety inspires more exercise
More exercise, more serotonin, less anxiety. Sounds good to me.
4. Get Massaged
When was the last time you got a massage, either from someone you know or from a massage therapist?
For most people it’s been a long time. If you suffer with anxiety it’s probably been even longer.
When you’re run down with anxiety you probably won’t accept an offer of a massage from a friend, family member, or partner. You probably won’t feel like visiting a massage therapist either.
That’s a shame, because massage is one of the best ways to quickly and significantly increase serotonin.
The University of Miami did an experiment. They took a group of people and measured their serotonin levels. Then they sent the group away to get on with their lives like normal.
With one difference: they had each person in the group go for a massage 2 times a week. That’s the only change this group of people made to the way they lived.
A few weeks later the group of people came back in and had their serotonin levels measured again.
Serotonin levels had increased by an average of 28% across the whole group.
That’s more than a quarter more serotonin, just by having a few massages. That’s pretty amazing.
It’s not just The University of Miami that’s done a study on the effects of massage on serotonin levels. There have been dozens of studies.
They all showed the same thing: that massage quickly and significantly increases serotonin.
The weird thing is that none of the professors and psychologists who’ve carried out these studies has a clue why massage has such a positive effect on serotonin.
Some of the experts speculated that it might be a form of the placebo effect, or that it was the intimacy of the massage that might be responsible for the increased serotonin.
But then they did the same experiment on 3 month old babies, who were far too young to be aware of anything as complex as intimacy or the placebo effect.
The babies experienced the same jump in serotonin that the adults experienced in the other studies. All because of a 15 minute massage twice a week.
For whatever reason, massage works at increasing serotonin.
That’s the good news. The bad news, like I said earlier, is that when you have anxiety you generally won’t feel like receiving massages from people you know or from massage therapists.
So what’s the answer?
I’ve got a few suggestions for you. See if you can make use of some of them to get the serotonin-boosting benefits of massage.
Here are your options:
- friends, family members, partners – just now I said that most people who are highly anxious won’t be interested in a massage from someone they know. Maybe “most people” doesn’t include you. If you feel comfortable with the idea of someone you know giving you a massage, and that someone is willing to help you out, go for it. If you’re up for it but the people you know aren’t, show them this post and let them know how beneficial it will be for you
- massage therapists – again, earlier in this post I said that most people won’t feel comfortable going to a massage therapist. If you’re not “most people,” fantastic. You can go and get a professional massage anytime you want. If you can afford it, go for it. A couple of massages a month could be enough to significantly reduce your anxiety
- self massage – massaging yourself is a bit like tickling yourself. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s never the same as when someone else does it for you. But based on all the studies I’ve checkout out, the serotonin boost doesn’t come from the physical pleasure of being massaged. Nobody’s sure why the serotonin boost comes. You’re just as likely to get the serotonin boost from self massage as you are from being massaged by someone else. And when you’ve got tight muscles in your neck or shoulders, even massaging yourself can feel good. Make it a habit when you’re in the bath or shower to spend a few minutes massaging yourself
- Shiatsu machines – Shiatsu massage machines work pretty well at simulating the way a real massage feels. Use one regularly and you’ll hopefully get the same serotonin-boosting effect that real massage can produce. You can get machines that are small and just work on your neck, or you can get machines that are big and do the entire upper body. Just make sure you avoid the massage machines that vibrate. Those don’t simulate genuine massages so they won’t have the same serotonin-boosting effect
I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of person who feels comfortable going to a massage therapist. It’s very rare for me to get a massage from someone I know too.
But since I’ve learned about the serotonin-boosting effects of massage I’ve wanted to take advantage of it.
A few years back I bought a little Shiatsu machine as a way to treat my anxiety-induced headaches. So recently I’ve dusted it off and I’m trying to use it a couple of times a week.
It’s hard to know if it’s boosting my serotonin, but the studies I’ve mentioned to you are so compelling that I’m going to keep using the Shiatsu machine. The potential benefits are worth 30 minutes of my time each week.
You should try to incorporate massage into your life too, using any of the ideas I’ve shared with you. With the potential to increase your serotonin by more than a quarter it has to be worth a shot.
5. Sleep Right
Sleep and anxiety are joined at the hip.
A lack of quality sleep causes tiredness, mood swings, a weakened immune system, all problems that lead to more anxiety.
Anxiety causes uncontrollable worry and fear, which is felt more severely in the quiet isolation of night, and so insomnia follows.
Sleeping problems can cause anxiety and anxiety can cause sleeping problems.
But there’s something else that links sleep and anxiety and the problems that one can cause the other, and it doesn’t get talked about as much as it should.
It’s worth taking a minute to learn how serotonin is made and how it’s influenced by sleep. Here’s how the serotonin production cycle works:
- you eat foods that contain tryptophan
- the tryptophan goes to your brain where it’s converted into serotonin
- the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin continues throughout the day
- as daylight fades your serotonin production slows down
- after dark your serotonin begins to convert into melatonin, the neurotransmitter that helps you sleep
- as you fall asleep your serotonin decreases and your melatonin increases
- during deep sleep serotonin production stops completely and melatonin levels reach their peak
- when you wake up and the light hits your eyes you immediately start to make serotonin again
You eat tryptophan, tryptophan becomes serotonin, serotonin becomes melatonin, you eat tryptophan again, and so on.
The serotonin production cycle continues endlessly.
When the serotonin production cycle is running smoothly you’ll produce optimal amounts of serotonin during the day, helping with your energy levels and your mood.
And you’ll produce optimal amounts of melatonin during the night, helping you get lots of quality, restful sleep.
If anything disrupts this cycle then both serotonin and melatonin levels will drop, causing you mood and anxiety problems during the day and sleeping problems at night.
Sleep is the most important part of this cycle. It’s the foundation upon which everything else is built. If it goes wrong then everything else tumbles down around it.
To help you get the kind of sleep you need to keep your serotonin production cycle functioning as it should, I’d like to share some simple strategies with you:
- stick to a schedule – the foundation for good sleep is a consistent schedule. Do your best to go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day. This will help you maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle. It will also help you to fall asleep more quickly, which will save you from anxious thoughts as you lie awake
- sleep when it’s dark – your body wants to sleep when it’s dark outside, not when it’s bright. Getting the majority of your sleep during the hours of darkness will help to maintain normal serotonin and melatonin production. If you work nights or you have a weird schedule for a reason you can’t overcome then this is a tip you won’t be able to follow. But if your schedule allows it, get your sleep when it’s dark
- wear an eye mask – if you don’t already wear an eye mask while you sleep you should start now. It will guarantee that you sleep in complete darkness, and that will help your body produce the optimal amount of melatonin while you sleep. If you have an irregular schedule and you’re forced to sleep in the day then an eye mask is a must so that you’re still sleeping in the dark
- use a light box – if you can afford to buy a light box, get one. It’s a great tool to help you maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle. If you need to get up early while it’s still dark, sit by a light box for 30 minutes as soon as you get up to trigger your body to make serotonin. If you take a nap during the day, sit by a light box the moment you wake up to quickly return yourself to the “wake” part of your sleep/wake cycle. If you’re not able to expose yourself to natural daylight as often as you should, sit by a light box for 30 minutes a few times a day to keep your body’s internal clock regulates – this will optimize your serotonin production throughout the day
- nap the right way – if you’re tired during the day and your schedule allows it then take a nap. But do it the right way. Time your nap so that it’s in the middle of your waking period. Try to nap for around 80 to 90 minutes, since that will be approximately the length of one sleep cycle and you’ll wake up feeling refreshed instead of groggy. As soon as you wake up, sit by a light box for 20 or 30 minutes to immediately get your body back to the “wake” part of your sleep cycle
I follow all of these strategies myself and they work well for me. I’m the world’s worst sleeper, and without the foundation these strategies give me I’d suffer with chronic insomnia (like I used to).
If your sleep isn’t what you’d like it to be, give these strategies a shot and see what kind of difference they make for you.
If you’re highly anxious then you probably don’t have as much serotonin as you need. If you increase your serotonin your anxiety will become less severe.
One way to get more serotonin is to take an antidepressant, but they don’t always work and even when they do they cause horrible side effects and it can be hard to get off them.
It’s a much better idea to increase your serotonin naturally, and there are lots of proven ways to do that.
I’ve outlined what I think are the 5 best ways in this post:
- expose yourself to as much bright light as possible, either natural daylight or with the help of a light box
- recall happy times from your past – can be done alone or with the help of someone close to you
- exercise more using simple triggers to make it happen
- get a massage once in a while from someone close to you, from a massage therapist, or do it yourself
- get better quality sleep by being consistent and by nurturing your delicate sleep/wake cycle
Increase your serotonin, decrease your anxiety. A simple equation.
And you now know 5 ways to make it happen.